Jennifer Egan’s fifth book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” has been met with overwhelmingly popular and critical approval, earning it last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Whether or not to call this work a novel or a collection of interrelated short stories is still up for debate among critics, but regardless of how she does it, Egan’s work here is engaging from start to finish.
Set largely in New York City, but also in a few different spots (California and Italy, to name a few), Egan relates a story of time and life set to the background of the music industry. Time is the eponymous “goon squad” as it shifts back and forth fluidly throughout the work, and it’s the story’s main impetus. Egan has said in interviews that her inspiration for the story was drawn from “The Sopranos” and Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” a bizarre combination that, weirdly enough, an informed reader can’t help but buy.
Summarizing is definitely difficult, as the 13 chapters can be read as individual works, set over 40 or so years. Characters move in and out of the work, sometimes playing leads, and other times unassuming supporting roles. Narrative privilege shifts, as does the style of writing. This is not a minimal change–we’re talking about first to second-person switches, a chapter communicated via PowerPoint slides and text-speak as a legitimate form of literature, perhaps suggesting this format as the new doublespeak (this particular chapter is set in an Orwellian New York future, after all).
We begin with the 30-something kleptomaniac Sasha who goes on a date with Alex. Alex later works for Bennie, who conveniently was Sasha’s former boss. Bennie himself was a shoddy bassist before getting into the music business and used to be married to Stephanie who works in PR. The connections go on and on. These are evolving and living characters, told sympathetically, but not to the point of sweetness; they’re trying, and sometimes failing, but that’s pretty typical, and Egan lets us choose whether or not they deserve the blame for their often laughably unexpected situations.
Egan’s greatest strength in “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is her ability to inject her delightfully barbed humor into her description and dialogue without seeming to try too hard. It’s sarcastic and modern, and, though it perhaps gets a little derailed towards the end, it keeps those pages irresistibly turning.